Rachel Shtier. Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 438 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-512750-8; $29.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-530076-5.
Reviewed by Georgina Hickey (Department of Social Sciences, University of Michigan - Dearborn)
Published on H-Urban (April, 2006)
Taking It Off
So here is a quick test: Were the women who performed striptease: a) pawns of a patriarchal and misogynistic system; b) proto-feminist barrier breakers; c) creative ambassadors for a uniquely American performance form; d) marginal performers in a marginal genre; or e) all of the above? According to Rachel Shtier, the correct answer is "e." Taking up the story of American striptease with its murky nineteenth-century origins in European theater and American vaudeville, Shtier follows it through its popularization at the end of the 1920s and during the Depression, its slide into a minor yet almost ubiquitous existence in the middle of the century, and an abrupt death with the advent of totally nude performances in the 1960s. Along the way, each of the above interpretations is offered, challenged, and then confirmed. Striptease, then, was a liminal performance style that might mean an awful lot or not very much at all.
Shtier is a professor of dramaturgy and the book includes many careful descriptions of performances by both famous and obscure strippers and teasers. She delineates the important components of striptease, including its innovations, cultural references, conventions, and its all-important sense of humor. These descriptions, and indeed the book as a whole, firmly place striptease in the realm of popular theater, diminishing its potential connections to the pornography industry. Much of the narrative includes the theaters, theater owners (most notably the Minskys), and performers (including Gypsy Rose Lee and Georgia Sothern) who practiced and popularized striptease, brought it to all classes of audiences, and defended it against the moralizing attacks of politicians such as New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
The story of striptease's rocky existence in popular American theater intersects with many topics of interest to urban historians: moral reform campaigns, the municipal legal system, public officials, neighborhoods and entertainment districts, entrepreneurs, and the leisure pursuits of different classes of Americans. Ultimately, Shtier has little new to tell us about any of these and for those who do not already know their urban contours, the breezy coverage in this book is not the place to start. The chronology of the book's arguments and narrative is also troubling. At times, the context of the historical moment is ignored, at others it is exaggerated. For example, when discussing the Columbia and the Mutual, the two theater circuits that supplied burlesque theaters with performers, Shtier puts great significance on the demise of the former and the subsequent monopoly of the latter as an indicator of the developing style of striptease. But then we learn that this reign began in the late 1920s and lasted only until 1931, not exactly a long-term trend to back up her claim for the Mutual's "rise in influence" (p. 100).
Considering the ambivalent argument and the unreliable chronology, it is difficult to recommend an audience for the book. Many of the pictures are quite fun, however, and a few are even surprising for what they revealing about the creativity of performers, the range of performers, and the frankness with which they advertised themselves. The author has apparently collected these images over the years, as many are credited to her private collection. Perhaps this book, like its subject matter, is destined to exist at the margins of urban and even theater history--it has its witticisms, its moments of titillation, and flashes of inspiration, but it is not likely to be central to the stories we tell about twentieth-century urban entertainment.
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Georgina Hickey. Review of Shtier, Rachel, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show.
H-Urban, H-Net Reviews.
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